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Making the market work for kids

Rental development's goal is security for foster children

EASTHAMPTON -- Judy Cockerton simply refuses to let foster children remain at the mercy of the system.

Last year, she and her husband legally adopted the foster child whom they first took in as a baby in 1999. Now, through a foundation she started, Cockerton is helping to build a 60-unit rental development in this Western Massachusetts community that will offer permanent homes for foster kids.

Most of the units, now being built on a tract with magnificent views of Mt. Tom, will be for residents 55 and older. But 12 will be reserved for families who adopt foster children.

She said a third of children in foster care don't find a permanent home, bouncing from placement to placement. Some end up in homeless shelters and prison after leaving the government's care at age 18.

The idea is to ''stop the bounce," Cockerton said. ''These children are invisible, they're stigmatized, and their lives are not respected."

A former teacher of hearing-impaired children who lives in Sharon, the 54-year-old Cockerton also owned two toy stores in Brookline and Mattapoisett called No Kidding! She sold both in 2001 to become a full-time advocate for children in care, and used some of the proceeds to start the Treehouse Foundation, to help children in foster care. She is its executive director.

Cockerton's personality is characterized by an effusive optimism that pulls people along. But rather than lobby government to devote more resources to foster care, she decided to launch her own new initiatives. ''I'm a start-up kind of girl," she is fond of telling people.

One catalyst was her experience in Sharon in the 1990s. ''I was the only foster parent in my town, and there was no one in the private sector advocating for these children," she said.

She was inspired to start the Easthampton project after reading about a similar facility in Illinois called Hope Meadows. She and her family intend to move to one of the ownership units that are scheduled to be built elsewhere on the property next year.

Cockerton's organization is partnering with a real estate firm, Beacon Communities Development, on Treehouse at Easthampton Meadow. Beacon will manage the rental units.

There are also seven house lots for sale at $110,000 each. And next year Beacon will oversee construction of 33 single-family and duplex ownership units, nine of which will be earmarked for first-time home buyers, on another part of the land. Still in the planning stages, they will probably cost in the low- to mid-$300,000 range.

The 46-acre site is off Park Street in this former mill town. Easthampton is seeing an influx of artists as well as professionals who commute to Springfield, Northampton, and Amherst.

The Treehouse portion of the development is estimated at $16 million, with funding from a combination of federal and state grants and tax credits. Beacon, which has developed affordable housing for decades, will have a management office on-site to screen tenants and maintain the property.

Rents for the family units occupied by foster parents, some subject to income restrictions, will be $844 to $1,101. One-bedroom apartments for seniors, also subject to income limits, will rent for $487 to $605 a month. Seniors will be encouraged to take a course on foster parenting, and to volunteer in the Treehouse community.

One prospective tenant is Pamela Smith Selavka, 44, who with her husband and 6-year-old daughter is preparing to adopt.

She and her husband were especially impressed by Treehouse's emphasis on ''the creation of an intentional community for children, and to support people who are supporting children," she said.

Cockerton sees her approach as a model. The idea is for children whose lives have been buffeted by loss and uncertainty to form lasting relationships with older people who themselves often feel neglected.

There will also be a community center with a gathering space, library, kitchen, and office with a fulltime community facilitator. Kerry Homstead, recently hired for that job, has a 25-year history of working with youth and social service agencies in Hampshire County.

Homstead said there was a certain ''resistance to rich folks coming in from Boston" with big ideas about creating a new community. But she predicted skeptics will be won over as Treehouse delivers on its promises.

Indeed, the initial reception was somewhat chilly. Some worried that adopted children would be a drain on the schools and city resources.

''A lot of foster children have a lot of issues. By the time they're in the system for a long time they're almost irreparable," said Julie Salzman, principal of the White Brook Middle School, which is next to the new development.

To meet these concerns, the Treehouse Foundation has funded new part-time positions in the schools, including a writer in residence and two gardening instructors.

Salzman said she was initially skeptical of Treehouse's promises, but was impressed when the foundation early on began making good on them. ''I've got to tell you, I didn't expect to see it before the houses were there and the people were moving in," she said.

Salzman said the Treehouse development will bring needed help to the schools and to the kids themselves.

Just a year ago, the state pulled a boy out of her school on the day before Christmas ''because something happened to his placement," Salzman said. ''This happens time and time again, and it's a huge problem not just for the schools, but also for the child's sense of security."

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